It was quite busy in the last month. Still is, but I am in the final stretch of the project that kept me busy and will pick up blogging again. I will start where I left previous month. At that time I was working on another post about the Lewandowsky/Cook/Lloyd “Alice-in-Winderland” paper. Remember, they wrote a paper in which they portrayed the arguments of skeptics as being incoherent. By giving generalized statements (especially in table 1) and putting them side by side, they demonstrated that these statements were incoherent.
My view is that the statements in the paper were not incoherent. They were framed as incoherent because those statements were generalized in such a way that they became incoherent. For example the statements “Future climate cannot be predicted” and “We are heading into an ice age” are incoherent at first sight. It cannot simultaneously be true that people believe that future climate can not be predicted and that we are heading to an ice age.
But taking a look at the examples that the authors themselves provided to prove their case, another story emerges. The actual statement made by skeptics were that mathematical models could not predict the climate in 100 years time and there are indications from previous cycles that a cooling period could be ahead. Which are two statements that are not incoherent. They could both be true. It is perfectly possible that one believes that mathematical models cannot predict the climate in 100 years time and that a cooling period could happen in the next decades on basis of other parameters.
Basically, it was the generalization of these skeptic statements that created the incoherence, not the actual statements (which were not incoherent at all).
The generalization is not exactly wrong per se (both are ways of predicting what could happen in the future), but nevertheless it is inappropriate in this comparison because both statements are used in a very specific way and that nuance got lost in the generalization.
Then I found a example of what it will like when we apply this very technique to the messages that we hear in the media and see how easy it is to create incoherent statements from perfectly coherent statements.
Back then (remember, I started writing this post last month) I came across the article Climate change likely to produce sexier male herbivorous amphipods. PhD student Katherine Heldt and University of Adelaide ecologist and evolutionary biologist Dr Pablo Munguia studied the herbivorous amphipod, Cymadusa pemptos, in large tanks under the elevated temperature and CO2 predicted for 100 years from now. It was found that the males got more attractive to the females, with a resulting population explosion of that particular amphipod.
The results of this study was widely reported. Some even said that Crustaceans Are Having More Sex Because Of Climate Change. Okay, that is what I remember: “crustacean populations will explode because of climate change”.
Then I found another article around the same time, Consequence of Climate Change: Baby Lobsters Cannot Survive in Warmer Waters, in which was claimed that baby lobsters will not survive if waters continue to warm, according to a study conducted by scientists from the University of Maine Darling Marine Center and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. In short, bad news for the lobster industry.
In skeptical science-spirit we can generalize this to: “crustacean populations will not survive because of global warming”. This is not exactly wrong, lobsters are members of the superclass of the crustaceae and the class of Malacostraca, just as the sand fleas from the first story.
Attentive readers would notice that we now created two inconsistent statements. It cannot simultaneously be true that crustacean populations will explode because of warming and that crustaceans will not survive warming.
That is where the pea went. The original statements at such were not exactly contradictory. It is perfectly possible that Cymadusa pemptos populations would increase in warm & high CO2 conditions and that baby lobsters would not survive warmer temperatures. It was the generalization that did the trick. It is however this trick that Lewandowsky and Cook employed in their paper in order to prove incoherence in skeptic’s arguments. The technique is very powerful, it can even find contradictions where there are none and there were many examples to be found in the Wonderland-paper.
It is even not limited to skeptical arguments as seen with the example of the crustaceans. Consensus or alarmist messages can be affected as well. This is not hard to understand. Those messages are translated by many people with various ranges of understanding of the subject of Global Warming/Climate Change. Combined with a lack of clear definitions and topped with the generalization of the message, there is probably no end to the contradictory statements that one could gather.